The Artist’s Dream

Ten minutes to spare, and I am beasting out a poem before bed. This is actually not an original: Poets and Writers asked for translations, though I think they were half-serious. Maybe tomorrow I’ll do a looser, more goofy one, but since I just wanted to exercise some part of my brain creatively before calling it quits tonight*, I grabbed the book of Émile Nelligan poems I picked up in Montréal last time I was there, and chose one at random. He’s a very formal poet from the last century, so his style is quite unlike mine, but I don’t mind it so much. Viv can probably do a much better one; this was rushed, and pretty free with the perfect alexandrine sonnet form of the original. Anyway, it’s something, which (this month) is almost always better than nothing.

(* My caveat is that I did have workshop tonight, and I was very proud of what I wrote for it; I think they liked it better than the one I actually revised/prepared for discussion. But as I don’t make a habit of posting workshop poems on here… another was needed.)

The original French:

Rêve d’artiste

Parfois j’ai le désir d’une sœur bonne et tendre,
D’une sœur angélique au sourire discret :
Sœur qui m’enseignera doucement le secret
De prier comme il faut, d’ésperer et d’attendre.

J’ai ce désir très pur d’une sœur éternelle,
D’une sœur d’amitié dans le règne de l’Art,
Qui me saura veillant à ma lampe très tard
Et qui me couvrira des cieux de sa prunelle ;

Qui me prendra les mains quelquefois dans les siennes
Et me chuchotera d’immaculés conseils,
Avec le charme alié des voix musiciennes ;

Et pour qui je ferai, si j’aborde à la gloire,
Fleurir tout un jardin de lys et de soleils
Dans l’azur d’un poème offert à sa mémoire.

…and, my translation:

The Artist’s Dream

Sometimes I wish for a sister, gentle and kind,
angelic, and with a Mona Lisa smile:
a sister who will softly teach me the way
to pray as one must, to hope for a while.

I have this pure wish for a sister, eternal,
who keeps company with the essence of Art,
who’ll know me by the lamp that burns late
and come cover me with the sky in her heart.

Sometimes she’ll take my hands in her own
and whisper in my ear some sisterly advice
in a strange melody that charms with its tone.

And if I can follow her out of the world,
I’ll grow a garden sown with lilies and stars
to her honor, in a sky-blue poem I’ve unfurled.

La Goulue

Another poem? Goodness!

This is another from the Donna Vorreyer lines, using verbs this time. The verbs in question being:

screen, dim, forget, be, command, move, do, untangle, navigate, send

I don’t know whether I should admit how much of this story is true, or invented, or what. Does it kill the poem for you as a reader if you know the truth of a narrative piece? At the very least, I will foreground the allusion of “La Goulue”: she was a(n) (in)famous performer at the Moulin Rouge at the end of the 19th century, a popular subject for Toulouse-Lautrec in art and popular gossip in the street. It means “the glutton”, as she was well known for seizing patrons’ drinks during her act. That kind of drunken abandon, especially in a public kind of art space, makes for a fabulous subject, sometimes. In the gay clubs, we’d call her a “hot mess”.

I have this idea for a TV show set in turn-of-the-last-century Montmartre. Look for it on HBO one day.

La Goulue

I bet you’re a poet, she hiccups, leaning over this
elderly Polish gentleman ready to enjoy the French film
they are screening. They have dimmed the lights,
which, we are given to understand, commands silence.
But not her: she is undaunted. She was already drunk
before she got here, I suspect, as she caresses
a glass that brims with Riesling. She has forgotten a bra;
she did not untangle her apricot hair in the bathroom after
bitter wind seduced it outside. Tonight’s film is about
the deception of relationships and mistaken identities,
where the farce is life itself, a comedy we all do
from time to time, without meaning to. And already,
I’m plucking ideas from the red curtains, the rafters
and rococo boxes, the women up front in elaborate hats,
the Polish gentleman, who has one green glass eye.
I scribble notes for a poem about the film before it starts,
maybe a sonnet to send some prestigious journal with
stamps and SASE and fool hopes, when she spots me,
moves in for a kill. Maybe you can write a line or two
for me, she laughs, parting the whispers like a toothless
lioness scatters the tall grass. But of course, I will;
and that makes her correct. In the film was a woman,
object of the protagonist’s disinterest, who by mischance
was navigated to thin immortality with an error of his pen,
Marianne, or something equally French, weepy, brazen,
refusing to see why she was written not with love,
but with pity. Then again, I was distracted; and maybe
I am remembering it wrong.

Reverie Fifty: six by six

I usually resist posting anything political on my blog, but obviously people are still reeling from yesterday’s tragedy. I’m pretty unashamedly pro-gun-control for reasons just like this, and I worry about the future of this country as access to mental healthcare plummets, gun ownership skyrockets, and demagoguery gets ever more fiery. Will this shock the country into doing something about the epidemic of gun violence we’re dealing with? (To call it anything else is just ignorant.) I don’t know; I hope so. Find me one nutbag who tries to justifiably defend more guns in the wake of this. (Actually, no, don’t find me one, because I know they’re out there, and I will go apeshit.)

The Fellow went up to Connecticut to visit his sister and nieces yesterday (as planned, nothing emergency); she was pretty beside herself, he said, but much better when they came home from school. (Not sure if their school was part of the lockdowns: they’re pretty far away from Newtown, but far away is not very far in CT.) There are cruel ironies everywhere, folded into the story: at our office holiday party on Thursday night, one of our guests said that nothing remarkable ever happens in Connecticut, and I can’t stop thinking about that. The one takeaway from this and every other tragedy of this kind that I want to share is, express yourself. Don’t be afraid to have the conversations that need having, and to feel what needs to be felt. Listening, discussing and understanding are what people need to do right now (with substantive action as a product of that), and they are the things that can help prevent other similar tragedies in the future.

It is a disservice to the dead to forget them, but it is also a disservice to not keep on living. It’s Saturday morning, and I have a Reverie to write. We are a terrible and complex species, capable of many things in our minds at once.

This week: “six by six

My intention with the series of world poetry forms every four weeks was to broaden people’s horizons a little bit regarding those obscure but enchanting forms that they might not otherwise be familiar with, in time and place. We’ve tapped Southeast Asia, Viking Scandinavia, Wales, Persia, Korea, Ecuador, Java and Bali, ancient Greece and Rome, Japan, Ireland, pre-Islamic Arabia, and Somalia; there are plenty more I would’ve liked to get to, but that will have to do for this year, at least. Today we’re going to talk about sestinas, a Franco-Italian medieval form which most people are familiar with, but daunted by. Fear not! The sestina is not so fearsome a beast as all that.

There’s plenty of theory about the construction of the form that veers into the mathematical, looking for numerical patterns and natural harmonies. I’m not going to get into all that, since my goal is to de-mystify the form a little bit, not make it more complicated. Very simply, as you’re probably aware, the sestina features six stanzas of six lines each, and rather than have a set rhyme scheme, repeats the end words (also called teleutonsin different orders through each stanza. So, for example, if you had the first stanza’s lines ending in these words:

blue, collide, slack, forbear, twice, jar

…then the second stanza would have:

jar, blue, twice, collide, forbear, slack

If you number the endwords, i.e. 1. blue, 2. collide, 3. slack, 4. forbear, 5. twice, 6. jar, that will help plot out the form of the poem. Each stanza will have the endwords in these orders:

1st stanza: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 (obviously!)
2nd stanza: 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3
3rd stanza: 3, 6, 4, 1, 5, 2
4th stanza: 2, 3, 5, 6, 1, 4
5th stanza: 4, 2, 1, 3, 6, 5
6th stanza: 5, 4, 6, 2, 3, 1

Beautiful, isn’t it? The Wikipedia article has some nifty little graphics to show how this pattern can be graphically represented, but I find them unnecessary. I do want to throw a couple of tips in right off the bat:
– Do choose your words first! We’ll talk about that below.
– You’ll note that each endword will appear, at some point, in every line position in a stanza: first line, last line, everything in between. Be sure to choose words that you’re comfortable having front and center, words that can end a stanza, and words that you’re okay with getting enjambed and/or lost in the shuffle in the middle.
– Note that the last line of each stanza ends with the word that will end the first line of the next. All of the words should be ones that won’t sound too heavy if they are repeated in the next line.
– By the same note, choose polysemous or homophonic words to make your life easier. Polysemy just means multiple meanings: notice that I picked blue above, which can be a color noun, color adjective, or emotion adjective, with ease. Similarly, jar could be a household object, a bird, or a startling verb. Homophony is also a clever way to bend the rules: I have forbear up there, but maybe I just want to repeat bear and bare as endwords, varying them six times.

In addition to the six stanzas (the “sestets” or “sixains”), there are three lines at the end, called the envoi. I actually recommend that you start with this, because people often choose six words that work really well in the context of the stanzas, and forget its tail, where things are more difficult. Different authorities insist on different patterns for the envoi, but the key is that each of the three lines should contain two of the endwords, somewhere inside. So, I might use my endwords above to do:

We collided twice before we made peace:
you, with a jar of things you couldn’t bear,
me, with heart gone slack to meet that twinned blue.

I was thinking “eyes” for the last part. It’s something I could return to in the stanzas if need be. My point is this: the sestina tends to get into a groove pretty early on, and readers often get bored by stanza five or six. The envoi is how you draw them back and wrap up what you’ve been doing in a neat little package, so it must pop a bit. Essentially, write a three-line poem you’re really proud of first, then go back for the other thirty-six lines.

Once you’ve chosen the endwords and gotten a sense of your envoi, what next? There is no required meter for the sestina, but English ones have often been written in iambic pentameter (of course), while the original troubadour-era ones had seven-syllable first lines followed by ten-syllable lines in each stanza, and the eventual Italian ones were in eleven-syllable lines. I find iambic pentameter to be nice, but of course you must serve the purpose of your poem: check out Daniel Ari’s fantastic guide to writing a sestina, which is instructive and flexes the form wonderfully. (Actually, check out a lot of the sestinas from McSweeney’s.) In actuality, the sestina can be one of the freest forms out there: yes, the endwords are fixed points, but the entire poem can just blossom off of them.

I’m getting into this habit of suggesting examples lately, so check out these two classics: Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina“, and Seamus Heaney’s “Two Lorries“. I like these two because they show a nice contrast between the everyday and memorial narratives that are the hallmark of the sestina. Often, the form is used for love and heartache poems, but the fact remains that it’s difficult to carry any shallow thoughts across 39 lines. My favorite sestinas are the ones like onions: deceptively simple on the outside, which can be peeled down layer after layer. (If you’re lucky, they’ll make you cry along the way.) The sestina is a very popular form, but I think a lot of people don’t practice building up their endurance before writing one; they simply want the challenge of the form. So, I exhort you: build up that endurance! Write one that will hold the reader’s attention in the same way that the 13th-century troubadours, back in the royal courts, would have had to hold their patrons’ attention with nothing but a harp or lute and six words repeating over and over.

If you want to further complicate the challenge:
– Try obfuscating the form a little bit. You’ll note that (6×6)+3 = 39. But so does 13×3: you could try re-dividing the lines into three stanzas of thirteen, while still respecting the endword pattern. See what it does to your enjambment. Or maybe you want to write it as a prose poem and hide it altogether.
– There are variations on the form based on the number of lines: the pentina (five stanzas of five lines each: endwords go 12345, 51423, 35214, 43152, 24531, with a two- or three-line envoi), the quatrina (1234, 4123, 3412, 2341, two-line envoi), the tritina (123, 312, 231, one-line envoi), and others that expand up to many more lines (such as the 9-tina). Try one of these out if you want.
– I made up this form a while back I called the helix sestina, and wrote a poem called “Madison Square Tableau” which was published by Autumn Sky. Essentially, it’s a sestina, but then if you go backwards from the end of the sixth stanza, the beginning words of each line repeat in the same orders as the endwords do. (And then the envoi contains all twelve.) It was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever written, so if you’re feeling masochistic… go for it!

I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

Madame X Leaving the Dakota

This was an experiment that turned out like a lopsided cake, I think. The idea was to write a postmodern poem, from dVerse: combine high culture and low culture, à la the New York School. So I took John Singer Sargent’s painting Portrait of Madame X as inspiration, along with its backstory of scandal and society (and its delicious double-meaning quip from a French art critic, Albert Wolff), and paired it with the whole paparazzi/tabloid culture of New York celebrity life, as I imagine it. And as postmodernism is often wont to do, I tried to get a bit existential with the weariness of fame that keeps cycling back to the allure; and what better way to show this futility than a (slightly tweaked) pantoum! Added to that is the narrative of a lovers’ quarrel, and I thought it would turn out quite well.

But I think time constraints kind of kept the batter from rising as it should. I might come back to the themes and re-work it a bit later, but for now I’ll let it stand in all its lopsided glory. (Also, because the link on dVerse expires in an hour, and I have other things to do.)

Madame X Leaving the Dakota
(after John Singer Sargent)

“One more struggle and the lady will be free.” –Albert Wolff

They have gathered round with their cameras, their
flashbulbs dusted with snow. Leaving small bite marks
with a broken stiletto, she stumbles forth into the rush and
press of the street. For a moment, they behold a queen.

Flashbulbs dusted with snow leave small bite marks
across her vision. There is a star-struck glow from the
press of the street. For a moment, they behold a queen
until she must descend, one unsteady foot a time.

Across her vision– there!– is a star-struck glow. (From the
flush in her cheeks, it was Veuve Clicquot.) She glares
until she must descend. One unsteady foot at a time
like this cannot be counted on. The railing is her lover.

Flushing her cheeks is the Veuve Clicquot. She glares
in answer to every question: do Friday nights always end
like this? can it be counted on? The railing of her lover
drifts around her while she fastens her smile’s clasp.

An answer to every question, dear: Friday nights? Always. And
she lets slip her wrap of black velvet, his gift. The snow
drifts around her. While she fastens her smile’s clasp,
they hoot and whistle and howl; they won’t believe it.

She lets slip: her wrap of black velvet’s his gift. The snow
white powder to erase her, his. The pack out for blood,
they hoot and whistle and howl. They won’t believe in
love for love’s sake, only blood peeking through its seams.

White powder to erase her. Is the pack out for blood
tonight? She could just die. For a long, phosphoric moment,
love for love’s sake (lonely blood peaking through it) seems
too much. But day in, day out, repetition is heavenly, too.

Tonight, she could just die for a long, phosphoric moment
of peace. She’s heard a thing or two about it, dreams
too much. But day in, day out, repetition is heavenly to
crave. The spectacle!– and she strokes her wineglass stem.

Of peace, she’s heard a thing or two. But she dreams
they have gathered round with their cameras. They
crave a spectacle. As she strokes the wineglass stem
like a broken stiletto, she stumbles forth, into the rush, and–


Oof, today was a day. Worked ten hours straight, with maybe eight minutes taken to nab lunch, followed by two hours at the yoga studio… I am ready to pack it in for the week already. But three more days to go. I’m falling seriously behind with the October submissions challenge, though I’ll try to catch up when I can.

I’ve got France on the mind, I guess. We Write Poems wanted a persona poem, which I’ve done my share of, though I don’t think I’ve ever tried to consider things from the point of view of a 19th century Impressionist. But it’s a bit more timeless than that, too. Anyway, it’s slightly ekphrastic. Here is an example art piece by Monet below:

Très beau!


East is the beginning of pale, China-silk blue,
a cornflower buried in snow coming up over the hills.
And in its wake trail orange peels dragged over
late summer fields, turning over the dew with wind.
We have come right to the edge in our thin jackets,
where land breaks off into air. Easels propped up,
palettes at the ready: we draw tumults of color
with knives along the boards, and flex our brushes.

One milk star blooms its arc across the sky,
opening all the doors of vision as it wanders along.
Two thousand years ago, some Gaulish warrior
gazed at these cliffs and saw the memories of gods.
A tall queen, turned to stone. A monstrous animal
whose arm claws up as its last hope from drowning.
The shadows reach up and domino down the sides,
tumbling stories from all the cracks in the stone.

But we do not concern ourselves with peering: we
stand back, and back, and blur our eyes with tears.
There are so many people in the world painting
stories with hard edges. We only want the curtain
dangling before it, caressed by everyone. This one:
where a western flame bleeds out on a white wall.
There is its flying buttress: how easy it is to mistake
the barest land for the soaring roof of a cathedral.


Eh, not really thrilled with this at all. DVerse wanted a food poem, and I realized that almost all the good food stories I have are already worked into poems; not many options! The situation behind this poem would be better suited to another poem, and the food is not really the centerpiece. But I guess it will kind of suffice? It remains the first and only time that decorum demanded I try foie gras. It was delicious; never again.


You should be in my film, the empress says,
holding court around the dining room table. She is still
formidable in her eighties: she squeezes my hand
with her own, and her rings flash in the light.

Skeletons and mannequins occupy the parlor,
and night birds flap through the evening as it breathes.
And I start thinking too much about the future
at the same time that I think too much about the past.

We are all speaking in hushed tones, sitting in
highbacked chairs. Someone is passing a baguette
for the foie gras that sits like a severed cat’s tongue,
grape jelly for its sorry blood. The empress smiles.

I am too polite for my own good; I make polite
decisions, feel the doors of what my life could be
opening and closing. You should be in my film;
but the night birds are singing, go home, go home.

Say nothing, and the empress’ attention wanders.
The future grows narrow, thinning like a pink taste
in the mouth. Another day begins to ferment
underneath us. My bags have already been packed.


Monday, Monday, why do you persecute me? Why do you send me project vendors who can’t get work done on time, refuse to email you to let you know what’s going on, and still manage to do the assignments improperly? And on top of that, why do you give me over one hundred emails to read, then keep piling them on, as the rain that follows the flood?

Sorry, I just needed to gripe about work for a minute.

This one is for Donna‘s prompt about instruments and all the things they summon up; it ended up as a sonnet of some kind. (If you don’t pay attention to the sonnets I write, let me point out that I often follow the 14 lines of iambic pentameter rule, and usually the volta, then openly flout the normal rhyme schemes in favor of my own. Though I guess the only volta here is really just a transition from memory/nostalgia to a rawer emotion.) I listened to the Amélie soundtrack while I wrote this to get me in the mood for it. Concertinas and accordions of all sorts always make me wish I lived back in Montmartre or Dublin or Argentina during the turn of the 20th century. Or, barring that, on the Paris Métro listening to a busker, because that happens too. If wishes were pegasi, then I would be up in the clouds.


I love all things that speak in many tongues,
two languages at once. The left hand says:
remember Ireland in the needling rain,
the céilí’s shadows, pubs with ragged light.
And then the right hand presses on the lungs,
collapses ribs: remember Paris as
it tangoes down the dusty years. I love
unsteady things that quaver: bittersweet,
exultant things that empty every vein
to fill them up with birdsong, clipped and coy.
The belly of the beast’s reserved, polite:
it paints the colors of the mourning dove
across the world. I love its sighed retreat
that squeezes out the sepia drops of joy.